Thursday, May 7, 2009

Gene Wolfe: May 7, 1931---

Gene Wolfe, fortunately for us, is still writing. I consider him one of the best writers working today--sometimes in SF, sometimes in Fantasy, and frequently in that blurry zone that overlaps SF, Fantasy, and everyday reality.

Following is the introductory paragraph to what many, and that includes me also, consider his best work and one of the best SF series ever written. It should be considered in any discussion that includes Asimov's "Foundation'' series and Greg Benford's "Galactic Center' series. The quote is from The Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume in "The Book of the New Sun."

"Chapter 1
Resurrection and Death"

"It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer's apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned."

So begins a series with one of the most unusual heroes in SF, and one who works in one of the most unpleasant occupations one can think of. Severian is a member of "the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence." In other words, he belongs to a quasi-religious order whose members are the government's torturers and executioners.

The story takes place on an Earth that is so far in the future that the Sun is beginning to age. The planet is old and tired, a dying earth. Strange beasts and sentient beings that are obviously alien have been on the planet for so long that they are considered native to the planet.

Severian has committed a serious infraction of the Order's rules, so he is sent off to fulfill the position of a traveling torturer and executioner in far distant lands; he is in exile. It is a bizarre landscape that he travels in his wanderings that eventually will lead him back to the Citadel of the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. Unaware of his future, he does not know that part of his quest will be to find a way to restore the sun's power--"The Book of the New Sun."

One suggestion I have for those who are interested would be to read Jessie Weston's short work on the Fisher King in the search for the Holy Grail in the Arthurian romances. The title of her work is From Ritual to Romance, and while it no longer is considered of interest to scholars, it makes fascinating reading for the rest of us as it provides us with insight into Wolfe's hero as he searches for his own Holy Grail.

The official listing of titles in "The Book of the New Sun" includes the following:

The Shadow of the Torturer
The Claw of the Conciliator
The Sword of the Lictor
The Citadel of the Autarch

There is a fifth novel, The Urth of the New Sun, which takes place after the events of "The Book of the New Sun." A sixth book, The Castle of the Otter, contains essays by Wolfe, a vocabulary for the series, and other bits of information and background to the series. For those curious about the title, Wolfe explains that Locus, the SF newspaper, reported that the title of the 4th volume was The Castle of the Otter, an obvious misreading or mishearing? of the true title, The Citadel of the Autarch. Wolfe says that he liked the title so much that he decided to give the name to this work.

This is only a brief glance at one of Gene Wolfe's tales. He has at least four more series and a number of novels, as well as numerous short story collections. For a more extensive look at Gene Wolfe and his work, I have provided a link to a fan site devoted to him and his works.

Overall Comment: one of the most innovative and interesting writers publishing today.


  1. I really need to push his work up on my to be read shelf, which used to be a to be read bookcase. I guess it is not technically a to be read bunch of boxes that all my books are in. sigh.

    I actually only have the first of the ones mentioned in your post, and will have to make it an effort to get to it.

  2. Scott,

    I hope you get a chance to read _The Shadow_ some time. If you get interested in the series and have trouble finding the rest, let me know. I can either loan you my copies or I can include the titles on my search list when I make my ubs runs.